I read obituaries. My morning newspaper habit is to read the funnies, then the front page, then the local section. The obits I save for last … like a sort of morbid dessert. But obits tell stories. I like stories about people and I especially like stories of people who have recently croaked.
In a strange way, it’s like a crowded cocktail party of strangers. In social encounters, many people condense their lives into a well-rehearsed paragraph. Since these encounters may only last a few seconds, that paragraph is usually a blockbuster: “Hi-I’m-Tiffany-and-I’m-a-neuropathologist-and-I-think-I-have-found-a-cure-for-Alzeheimer’s-and-what-you-do?” I recite my one boring paragraph and then we’re swept away. Kinda like obits.
After decades of reading obits, I’ve read some amazing stories. In my city, a woman named Hilda Gard died at age 96. German by birth, Hilda was an American spy in World War II. She worked for the OSS which is now called the CIA. As remarkable as her story was, about a month later I found another woman named Hilda Gard buried in the obit page. They were two different people … different ages; different backgrounds. Yet they shared a name reminiscent of a remarkable 12th Century Abbess; they shared my city; they also shared a history in the OSS. Hilda Gard #2 was also a spy.
Brent Abel died last year in my city. He was a lawyer. He was also the only U-S naval officer since the War of 1812 to issue the desperate order to “Repel All Boarders”. During WWII, Abel was Captain of a small warship when he tangled with a surfaced German submarine. Capt. Abel rammed it. Crippled and sinking, the German crew swarmed topside … not to surrender but to board and seize the American ship. During the ensuing hand-to-hand fighting, the American sailors, as a last resort, tossed coffee cups at the heavily-armed German sailors. Capt. Abel and his crew ultimately prevailed. For his valor, Brent Abel was presented the Navy Cross, a medal second only to the Medal of Honor. Until his obit was published, virtually no one knew what Brent Abel did that morning on May 6th, 1944.
Obituaries are the final words. An obituary is the last public acknowledgement of a life lived. It is, in so many ways, the most important personal document we’ll ever be connected with … a tombstone in cyberspace.
Obits are too important to be written at the last minute by grieving family or friends. Rather, the nearly- dead should write their own. Don’t include what disease will kill you. Don’t list all the people who survive you … they already know who they are. Who cares if you loved gardening or traveled a lot after retiring? Instead, what happened to you that made you the person you were?
How about this:
Andrew “Drew” Shinnick. Great-grandson of a Civil War general and an Irish blacksmith. Grandson of a professional gambler and a banker. Son of a brilliant artist and a man who knew Mahatma Gandhi. Father of an exceptional writer. Husband of the smartest person he ever knew. Drew was once a sailor who watched a 100-foot wave sweep his ship from stem to stern. His world changed when he watched napalm incinerate people in an air strike over North Vietnam. He saw four waterspouts undulating in the Sunda Strait. One night he lay on a warm deck in the Indian Ocean and watched the Milky Way turn slowly above him. He was stabbed once and, later, beaten-up by the Ku Klux Klan when he was a reporter. He witnessed earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards and droughts. Drew loved quantum mechanics because it was completely incomprehensible. While he denied it, Drew secretly believed we never really die. He lived his life as best as he was able.
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